Tag: Secondary

Michigan v Notre Dame

Secondary depth chart reaches red-line status


A one-armed man. Two guys sentenced to a year in the house. And a parolee. Sounds like the cast list for a new cop drama.

But that’s the safety depth chart entering the final Saturday of the regular season. And Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy are the four-man crew that’s going to be asked to run with and slow down USC’s receiving corps, the most athletic group Notre Dame’s secondary has seen since Florida State.

The situation at cornerback isn’t much better. Joining this operation will be a grizzled veteran with a bum wheel: Cody Riggs. Also featured is the cornerback with a bad past, with the burn-marks from last week still stinging Devin Butler. But the sophomore will be back out in coverage, asked to matchup with freshman phenom JuJu Smith or former all-world recruit George Farmer.

Cole Luke showed he was up for the task last weekend against DeVante Parker. So this week he’ll take on Nelson Agholor, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. Up against a quarterback who has thrown exactly four interceptions against 30 touchdowns and the ravaged back end of the Irish defense will be in for a tough test.


It’s been a long time since Notre Dame had critical depth issues like this in the secondary. And this comes after Kelly and his defensive coaching staff put an emphasis on restocking a depth chart all-but ignored by the previous regime.

But there have been some bumps along the road. And sometimes the best laid plans end — well, like this. Here’s a quick run through on how we got here.

Collinsworth was Kelly’s first recruit at Notre Dame. And he’s the only member of the secondary from the 2010 class not to transfer (Chris Badger, Lo Wood, Spencer Boyd are all gone).

The 2011 class features Matthias Farley playing key minutes as a nickel back (he started as a wide receiver). It also swung and missed on Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, a duo seemingly collecting dust before departing from the program at year’s end. And Hardy’s career was star-crossed even before he missed the majority of the season as part of the academic fraud case.

And now to the bad luck. The 2012 class should’ve been the backbone of this secondary. But injuries derailed Nicky Baratti‘s career. Tee Shepard never made it to spring football. CJ Prosise turned into a wide receiver. John Turner turned into a linebacker. And the future star of the group, accidental defensive back KeiVarae Russell, is serving a two-semester suspension from the university.

The true sophomore group is holding its own. Rashad Kinlaw didn’t last at Notre Dame, but Luke has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback. And Butler is getting better, even if a bad rep like the one he took against DeVante Parker turned into six points.

Throw in true freshman Nick Watkins to the two-deep, and you’ve got the entire motley crew that’ll try and slow down the Trojans passing game.


Of course, there is a bright side to this attrition. And that’s the experience that a player gains having been thrown into the fire. We’ve seen Farley emerge a better football player after last season’s adversity. And Kelly talked about the effect this opportunity could have on safety Elijah Shumate.

“We needed to get him back in the game and get him going and get some confidence and get him on the upswing,” Kelly explained. “In this game, in practice for the bowl, in the Bowl game, to really kind of sling shot him into next year.”

That slingshot effect will likely also be applied to Redfield. After talking about the disappointment of not having the opportunity to play against USC last season, the former Trojan commit and Southern California native finds himself in a precarious point of his career entering the season finale.

Relegated to special teams coverage the past two weeks while the safety play has been dreadful, the ACL injury to Drue Tranquill — not to mention Collinsworth’s inability to play effectively in space — should force Redfield into action. And hopefully Saturday is the day where we see flashes of the athlete the coaching staff knows they have married with the football player they want him to become.

“He’s got a great trait, it’s his athleticism,” Kelly said last week. “But he’s got to take that trait and really start to translate it on the field.  And that means football knowledge, understanding the game, really taking what he learns in the classroom and applying it to the field.  And he wants to do it. He’s willing to do it. He’s willing to put in the time.

“He knows that there’s things that he’s got to get better at in terms of recognition and understanding the game and where to be and when to trigger and all those things.”

For every young safety that sees the field immediately, there’s a dozen more than take time to learn the game. We watched Harrison Smith go from the doghouse to first-rounder. Former captain Kyle McCarthy went from special teamer to prolific tackling machine in his final two seasons.


Tasked with learning a new system and embracing a philosophy radically different than the one deployed the last four years, it’s been an up-and-down season for a group many expected to be the strength of the defense. But injuries, suspensions, and bad luck have played a hand in all of that.

It’s also a reason why the coaching staff continues to recruit the safety and cornerback position hard. Five defensive backs are slated to sign with the Irish in the 2015 class. And the staff is after more. They made their sales pitch to Florida safety Ben Edwards last weekend. They’ll take their swing at California cornerback Biggie Marshall at the team’s banquet — one of the biggest fish left on the board in the country. The Irish just entertained elite corner Ykili Ross and had Frank Buncom IV in town on an official visit earlier.

But all of that is around the corner. For now, the assignment is both remarkably difficult and astoundingly simple:

Beat USC.

Offseason cheat sheet: Defensive backs

Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

When Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame program, he was tasked with not just rebuilding the secondary, but reloading it. While he was lucky to inherit a front line of talented players, he was left with a depth chart that was frighteningly thin. No position better illustrated that than safety. When Jamoris Slaughter was injured in Kelly’s opening game, the depth chart didn’t go two deep with scholarship players.

My how things have changed. First Kelly reloaded at safety, filling the depth chart with quality prospects. Last cycle he took dead aim at cornerback, adding three talented youngsters. After making it through last season with three first-year starters, all converted offensive players, the secondary should be an equal to the front seven.


Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott had their hands full last season, forced to get KeiVarae Russell up to speed after spending all summer as a running back-in-training and Bennett Jackson through the season with a bum shoulder. They also had to make the safety position work after losing key reserve Austin Collinsworth before the season started and top shelf starter Jamoris Slaughter in the season’s first month by plugging in Matthias Farley.

The growing pains that we never even saw will pay dividends this season, with Russell, Jackson and Farley all expected to be high level contributors. Fighting for time are returning players expected to play big roles in ’12, like Lo Wood, now back from an achilles injury, and Collinsworth, healthy after back and shoulder ailments.

Youth will immediately challenge to get on the field, namely elite recruits Cole Luke and Max Redfield. Both have already passed veterans on the depth chart, which contributed to the transfer of safety Chris Badger and Josh Atkinson’s move to wide receiver. But even with the attrition, and a season ending injury to Nicky Baratti, depth should be the strength of this group.


Here’s an breakdown of the cornerback and safety personnel:

Bennett Jackson, Sr. #2
KeiVarae Russell, Soph. #6
Lo Wood, Sr. #23
Cole Luke, Fr. #3 (or #36)
Jalen Brown, Jr. #21
Devin Butler, Fr. #12
Josh Atkinson, Jr. #24
Rashad Kinlaw, Fr. #26
Connor Cavalaris, Jr. #47
Joe Romano, Sr. #35
Jesse Bongiovi, Fr. #34

Matthias Farley, Jr. #41
Austin Collinsworth, Sr. #28
Elijah Shumate, Soph. #22
Eilar Hardy, Jr. #4
Max Redfield, Fr. #10
Nicky Baratti, Soph. #29
John Turner, Soph. #31
Eamon McOsker, Soph. #46
Drew Recker, Fr. #39
Ernie Soto, Jr. #43


The two deep in the secondary was probably one of the big surprises of week one. That Cole Luke worked his way into the rotation this early in the season shows you what type of talent the Arizona native brings to South Bend. Kelly plans on using Luke in nickel and dime packages, and likely special teams, as he’ll be wearing No. 36 this Saturday so as not to run into eligibility issues when he and Amir Carlisle are on the field together.

Perhaps also surprising is Eilar Hardy’s ascension into the two-deep at safety. Hardy is listed, not five-star recruit Max Redfield, as a key back-up, perhaps a surprise nearly bigger than Austin Collinsworth beating out Elijah Shumate for the starting safety job opposite Matthias Farley.

Kelly expects Collinsworth and Shumate to both play, calling them 1A and 1B. And while Redfield isn’t in the two deep, that might not be for long, as the Southern California native is too dynamic of a football player to stay off the field for long, but needs to know all the responsibilities heaped on the last line of defense.

With a front seven that’s as dynamic as Notre Dame’s, it’ll be interesting to see what Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks have in store for the secondary. After last year’s mostly vanilla offerings, there’s every reason to believe that the Irish can mix coverages and feel confident putting their cornerbacks on an island, adding more to an already potent pass rush.

Turner’s pledge to Irish continues commitment to secondary

Chinedum Ndukwe

It turns out it didn’t take a few weeks to make a college decision. Over the weekend, just days after earning his way to a scholarship offer, John Turner pulled the trigger, committing to Notre Dame.

“It was just a perfect fit,” Turner told the South Bend Tribune. “Every time I came up I fell in love with it again. The academics, the people there, the coaches, just everything. I loved it.”

Turner is the eleventh commitment to the Irish, and the 6-foot-2, 200-pound safety adds another physical presence to the secondary’s depth chart. After spending last recruiting cycle making a commitment to the physicality and size of the front-seven, the Irish recruiting efforts seem to have been focused on replentishing the secondary, with Nicky Baratti, Ronald Darby, CJ Prosise, and Tee Shepard already committed to play for Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks.

The Irish are in need of reinforcements, with Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith all in their final seasons of eligibility. And while Turner’s commitment might not have resonated on the national scale, he fits the prototype of what Brian Kelly and his staff are looking for in a safety.

We’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the height/weight specs of defensive ends and outside linebackers in Brian Kelly’s system, but Kelly seems to be revealing the archetype of what he’s looking for in defensive backs as well.

Until last season, the Irish defense was plagued by mediocre secondary play. Either a step slow or underwhelming physically, Notre Dame was often “out-athleted” by opposing offenses, and the results were often painfully obvious.

Under Charlie Weis, the Irish rarely picked up players of Turner’s physical profile. If you’re looking for safeties that were at least 6-foot-2 and 200-pounds, you can only find four — David Bruton, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and Danny McCarthy. Motta had a breakout season last year, thrust into action after injuries depleted the depth chart. McCarthy has been plagued by injuries throughout the beginning of his career, but like his brother has the chance to be a great late bloomer. David Bruton, when he’s not substitute teaching, is an NFL safety for the Broncos. Harrison Smith is on the way.

(Interestingly, Chinedum Ndukwe is the perfect example of why finding prototype athletes at safety is such a good way to go. Whether he was on campus as a linebacker, wide receiver, or safety, his speed and athleticism is what got him on the field, and player development is what turned him into a tenured NFL safety.)

In many ways, Turner embodies the type of player Kelly is targeting. A physically impressive safety that just proved to the staff that he has the speed and skillset needed to play at a high level. At safety, all three of the players Notre Dame has received commitments from are 6-foot-2 and at least 190-pounds, revealing that the Irish understand the need to bring in physical players that can both cover space and play physically at the point of attack.

We won’t know how good Turner, Baratti, or Prosise truly are until they get to campus, but as we saw last year, there’s a plan in place. Once you look at the details, you realize there’s a bit of architecture when it comes to Brian Kelly’s plan. More often than not, that’s a very good thing.